Pullman Wins the Carnegie of Carnegies

By Mark Trodden | June 21, 2007 9:03 pm

I almost never read children’s books, since my list of unread novels aimed at adults is already far too long. But a few years ago I took time, on the advice of friends, to read Philip Pullman’s trilogy – His Dark Materials. The initial book of the trilogy, Northern Lights, won the coveted Carnegie Medal in 1995. Last night it was declared the finest children’s book of the last 70 years, and awarded the Carnegie of Carnegies 70th Anniversary Medal.

The trilogy is remarkable fiction, taking on the themes of science, religion, authority and morality in a wonderfully rich array of parallel fantasy worlds. This is seriously educated fiction, drawing on cosmology, particle physics, philosophy, theology and history, and pitched at children. It is sometimes violent, sometimes upsetting, but ultimately uplifting. If you have kids, they’ll love it. If you haven’t read it already, you might find yourself itching for them to finish each book so that you can get your hands on it.

  • http://verwide.net/blog/ Moody834

    Pullman’s trilogy is a wonder to read and I highly recommend it. Intelligent, deep, intricate and more than clever; harrowing, haunting, unsettling and poignant; uplifting, to be sure, heartwarming and delightfully human; a coming-of-age tale that manages to deliver itself on multiple levels suitable to young adults and older folk alike. Pullman well deserves the award.

    Oh, yes… And now the first book, The Golden Compass, is a movie. Nicole Kidman is playing Ms. Coulter! ::swoons:: I saw the trailer for it and it looks inspired.

  • archgoon

    For clarification, Northern Lights is the name of the first book in the UK. Golden compass is the name of the first book here in the states.

  • jay

    I read only the first book of the trilogy, then I stopped to read further. I don’t know exactly why, but I felt a little uneasy about the whole setting. Mr. Pullman’s overuse of particle physics knowledge with which I’m quite familiar seems to turn me off: A human being with a damon constitutes a doublet, or a supermultiplet? A parallel universe connected to ours seen through a veil of aurora? Mysterious particles (were they neutrinos?) collecting around adults (or kids)? Quite up-to-date and detailed in its setting, but it’s not appealing to me as much as The Lord Of The Rings trilogy or Harry Potter septology are. Is it because of some religious implications in the book? Can anybody give me a reason why I should read through the end not to miss the main attractions?

  • http://www.qunat.org/pieterkok PK

    Ah, Pullman. The other atheist from Oxford…

    I really liked Northern lights, and also (to a lesser extent) the subtle knife. But I thought the third book was a let down: too much of a Hollywood blockbuster ending. He may have written that with the film in mind. The death of God was brilliant, though.

    The just finished filming the movie of the first book here in Oxford. Should be very cool.

  • http://mollishka.blogspot.com mollishka

    Ha! I just finished this trilogy Wednesday night (after reading 1.5 of the books in one afternoon). It’s like Narnia meets Children of the Mind (with a touch of Rama for good measure), but the religion aspect is surprisingly un-annoying (unlike the previously mentioned novels).

  • Arun M

    I read all three books couple of years back and absolutely loved it. I believe there is a movie adaptation coming soon…but I don’t expect it to be half as good.

  • http://sarcozona.org susannah

    These books had a tremendous impact on me as a child. I grew up in a very religious household and wasn’t allowed to read many of the books my peers enjoyed, but a wonderful librarian helped me sneak books I wanted to read home, this series included. They made me feel ok about wondering if god was there and asking questions and the smart and brave little girl in the stories was someone I could admire and try to emulate.

    Now, while my parents still believe the earth is 6000 years old and more hurricanes are signs of the endtimes, I’m studying biology and the evolution of drought resistance. There were certainly other influences that helped me, but these books gave me the courage to start asking questions.

  • miller

    I read these relatively recently upon hearing that they were a “rebuttal” to Narnia (really? a fictional rebuttal?). The first book was by far the best. The other two books were completely different in pacing and setting. I liked them, but the last book felt over the top. And as much as I agree with the values, I think they came on too thick for a children’s book. I think I prefer Harry Potter, where the only themes are ones that no one in their right mind would disagree with.

  • http://name99.org/blog99 Maynard Handley

    “And as much as I agree with the values, I think they came on too thick for a children’s book”

    But, of course, that’s part of what makes them such a joy. They don’t treat the reader like an idiot. The world is presented as it is, and the assumption is that you, the reader, are smart enough to fit all the pieces together — to be aware enough of particle physics to pick up those allusions, likewise with Victorian England, likewise to just get what is going on with matched demons without a didactic explanation. The values business — think for yourself about what religion means, and has meant through history — is just one more part of this.

    I expect it is true that the set of kids who can cope with this is smaller than the set that can cope with Harry Potter, but I also suspect it is larger than many supposed educators suspect. (cf Stephen Johnson’s _Everything Bad is Good for You_)

  • http://CapitalistImperialistPig.blogspot.com CapitalistImperialistPig

    The first book: – Highly original and fascinating.

    The second: An occasionally interesting sequel.

    The third: Probably only amusing to devout members of the church militant of atheism – and only for political reasons rather than literary.

    Overall, a good start with a contrived and boring ending. The sinister characters at the center of the plot become unconvincing and ultimately ridiculous.

    The judgement of the prize committee is bizarre – only the first half of the first book is truly of the highest caliber.

    I found the author’s attempt to wrap his mystical story in particle physics terminology merely annoying.

  • http://CapitalistImperialistPig.blogspot.com CapitalistImperialistPig

    But I wouldn’t want to miss Nicole Kidman as the sinister Mrs. Coulter.

  • http://mollishka.blogspot.com mollishka

    The third book left some questions unanswered, but on the other hand, it is a much heavier book theme-wise than the earlier ones, tackling a lot of issues (death and love being the most obvious ones) that most children’s books wouldn’t dare touch.

  • http://www.valdostamuseum.org/hamsmith/ Tony Smith

    CIP said “… Overall, a good start with a contrived and boring ending … The third [book]: Probably only amusing to devout members of the church militant of atheism …”.

    I am not sure that the book is atheistic (in the sense of against all religion) rather than just pointing out severe flaws in many religious organizations. Consider two quotes [with my comments following each in brackets]:

    “… The Authority, god, the Creator, the Lord, Yahweh, El, Adonai, the King, the Father the Almighty – those were all names he gave himself. He was never the creator. … He told those who came after him that he had created them, but it was a lie. …”.
    [ In my opinion, this can be read as the bad guy “The Authority” being just that, merely an authoritative ruler of a religious organization, such as the presider over an Inquistion, and NOT really G-d.]

    “… the Authority considers that conscious beings of every kind have become dangerously independent … the followers of wisdom … have always tried to open minds … the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed …”
    [In my opinion, this describes the attitude of any bureaucratic totalitarian dictator with respect to “emperor-has-no-clothes” independent thought, a couple of examples being: arXiv’s blacklisting; and the conflict throughout the history of China between Confucian rigid bureaucracy and Taoist creativity. (Note that recently the current Chinese government has endorsed Confucianism, but continues to repress such Taoist-related entitities as Falun Dafa.)]

    In short, I don’t see Lyra’s killing The Authority as a death-of-G-d scene, but as a triumph of open-ended Taoist creativity over rigid Confucian authority, which is consistent with my religious views (Einstein-Spinoza-Taoist Pantheism),
    I don’t think that you have to be in the “church militant of atheism” to be OK with the way the book(s) turn out.

    Tony Smith

    PS – The Golden Compass reminds me of the Chinese LoPan,
    the three instruments: Golden Compass; Subtle Knife; and Amber Spyglass
    remind me of
    the Shinto Triad: Mirror; Sword; and Jewel

  • http://scienceblogs.com/highlyallochthonous CJR

    People who didn’t like the third book so much – try re-reading it. I appreciated it much more on my second reading than the first (probably because, unlike Harry Potter, it’s not a book you can skim read).

    In later life I’ve come to the conclusion that all of the best children’s books (and the ones I liked most when I was a child) are the most ‘adult’ ones. Children love dark and complicated and ambiguous – it’s us adults who foolishly imagine that they will be upset or overwhelmed.

  • http://andyxl.wordpress.com/ Andy Lawrence

    Philip Pullman is a magician. Normally, fantasy makes my toes curl up with embarrassment – Tolkien, Moorcock, C.S.Lewis – all rather dire if you are over fifteen – but somehow Pullman makes it all so real. Armoured bears, personal daemons, a knife that cuts between dimensions. Wow. And it works for kids, teenagers and adults alike.

    For those with kids, Pullman writes plenty of real childrens books too, and they are all gems. My favourite is “I was a rat”. Try it. If you don’t have children, borrow a niece or nephew and read it to them.

  • Nomad

    The first book (The Golden Compass in the USA) was very good, although I wouldn’t gift it with the title ‘Best Children’s Book in the last 70 years’. Pullman has some interesting ideas (in the fantastical realm), but I would strongly argue with Mark’s post that his cosmology and particle physics is “seriously educated”. The books decrease in quality with The Amber Spyglass (3rd and final book of the trilogy) more a soapbox for Pullman’s various anti-religious opinions than a challenging and thought-provoking read. From The Amber Spyglass: “The Christian religion is a very powerful and convincing mistake, that’s all” and “… the rebel angels, the followers of wisdom, have always tried to open minds; the Authority and his churches have always tried to keep them closed.” Whether you agree with his assessment of religion, or not, his atheistic screeds become annoying and detract from what could have been a memorable trilogy. Is it a series for children? Not really. Although literate youth (13+ years old) would enjoy The Golden Compass.


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About Mark Trodden

Mark Trodden holds the Fay R. and Eugene L. Langberg Endowed Chair in Physics and is co-director of the Center for Particle Cosmology at the University of Pennsylvania. He is a theoretical physicist working on particle physics and gravity— in particular on the roles they play in the evolution and structure of the universe. When asked for a short phrase to describe his research area, he says he is a particle cosmologist.


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